Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Culture Is Going Down the Water Closet

I took a break from writing a post I'm not sure about and began reading The Case of the Gilded Fly, a 1944 murder mystery by Edmund Crispin, recently reprinted by Felony & Mayhem. This was Crispin's first book, and so far it's entertaining. The setting is Oxford during World War II, and some of the characters are academics and former academics. One of the former is Professor Gervase Fen, of whose friendship with a police constable the narrator tells us:
Their relationship was further complicated by the fact that Fen had solved several cases in which the police had come to a dead end, while Sir Richard had published three books of literary criticism (on Shakespeare, Blake and Chaucer), which were regarded by the more enthusiastic weekly papers as entirely outmoding conventional academic criticism of the sort Fen produced. It was, however, the status of each as an amateur which accounted for their remarkable success; if they had ever changed places, as a mischievous old don in Fen's college once suggested, Fen would have found the routine of police work as intolerable as Sir Richard, the niggling niceties of textual criticism; there was a gracious and rather vague sweep about their hobbies which ignored such tedious details. Their friendship was a longstanding one, and they enjoyed each other's company enormously [12].
An example of the ex-academics is Nicholas Barclay.
As an undergraduate reading English a brilliant academic career had been prophesied for him, and he had bought, and read, all those immense annotated editions of the classics in which the greater part of every page is occupied with commentary (with a slight gesture to the author in the form of a thin trickle of text up at the top, towards the page number), and the study of which is considered essential to all those so audacious as to aim at a Fellowship. Unfortunately, several days before his final examination, it occurred to him to question the ultimate aims of academic scholarship ... [14].
I enjoyed these digressions on English academia in the 1940s because to hear some people today tell it, you'd think that impenetrable and pedantic writing by academics was a recent development in the UK and the US, probably due to infection by French theory. (French theory I cannot possibly allow; people always think it is improper .... But German sounds a thoroughly respectable language, and indeed, I believe is so.*) But it's nothing new, and is a lot older than this book. I think I'll enjoy the rest of it.

*Yes, that's a deliberate misquotation.